Navigating the ‘Station Island’ Collection

Contents Foreword followed by: Main Sources; the Structure of Station Island; biographical ‘events’ between 1976-1984; the collection and its moment; Heaney’s ‘book of changes’; ‘hampering stuff’; Catholic beginnings; loss of faith; breaking loose; the political dimension; ‘Troubles’ timeline; poetry and politics: retaining a neutral voice; reconciling the clash between politics and poetry; the redemptive power of Art; Irishness;   the Poems individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure Part 1: the stirrings of change; The Underground La Toilette Sloe Gin Away from it All Chekhov on Sakhalin Sandstone Keepsake Shelf Life A Migration Last Look Remembering Malibu Making Strange The Birthplace Changes An Ulster Twilight A Bat on the Road A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann A […]

Foreword

  Station Island, published by Faber and Faber in 1984, is Seamus Heaney’s seventh collection. Heaney is in his mid-forties. The totality of his collections over more than half a century since Death of a Naturalist (1966) have confirmed his place at the very top of the premier league of poets writing in English. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Station Island. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader; there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and the sincerity of his personal feelings, his poetry is rich in […]

The Underground

Heaney dramatises an incident from his honeymoon, dissolving a panicky rush into a version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Underground and Underworld merge in a fusion of reality and nightmare. A London Underground tunnel is the unifying factor: first a memory played out (then),the intimate recollection of a mad rush to get to a Promenade concert at the Albert Hall; the second and third providing (now) imagined associations: first a character from German folklore lost in a dark forest then the scene of an Underworld trap into which a figure from classical mythology fell and lost his wife as a result. We follow two figures in a vaulted passageway leading to and from the Tube; the ‘she’ figure […]

La Toilette

The early-morning embrace of a loved one recalls unwelcome memories of Heaney’s Catholic training. The die is cast, however: Marie’s is Heaney’s new sacred body. Initial sensual contact focuses on the nightwear and body of a woman engaged at her ‘toilette’. The speaker’s voice reveals the excitement generated by the way she presents herself: bathrobe/ ungirdled, first coldness of the underbreast . At this moment of physical pleasure he cannot prevent the accessories of Catholic worship from interrupting the intimacy he is enjoying, touch is like a ciborium in the palm. He shakes his head at the Catholic message that they no longer believe in (Remember?); it was coldly dismissive of the physical closeness, allure and sexuality he is now […]

Sloe Gin

  Heaney proposes a lyrical toast to a drink made from sloe berries that drip with taste and sensation and to the woman who produces sloe gin. The poem salutes the creation of an enjoyable tipple. The process is defined as a late autumn activity performed as the clear weather of juniper/ darkened into winter. The tipple-maker simply added alcoholic sustenance to the berries: fed gin to sloes. The speaker’s curiosity that led to him opening the sealed jar prematurely sent its bouquet (the tart stillness of a bush) rising through the pantry where it lay marinating. Sampling brought pleasure to taste and sight: the sharpness of its cutting edge and its cosmic twinkle that flamed/ like Betelgeuse. The chink […]

Away from it All

The poem should be read in the context of the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of the H-Blocks at Long Kesh and of hunger strikers. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, acknowledges that he has often been absent from Ulster as events unfolded; he has sympathy for ’causes’, but is unsure what stance he ought to adopt. The speaker and his anonymous friend are enjoying a convivial session in a seafood restaurant (let us suggest, to coincide with Heaney’s first meeting with Czeslaw Milosz, that the setting is somewhere on the Californian coast); others are almost certainly present. The poem explores the tensions writers share as regards their creativity, their historical moment, their take […]

Chekhov on Sakhalin

These instances from a political pilgrimage are dedicated to fellow Ulster man of Letters Derek Mahon (to whom Heaney’s Seeing Things collection is dedicated); amongst their numerous contacts Heaney and Mahon shared, in 1977, an Arts Council tour entitled In Their Element; The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of H-Blocks at Long Kesh and hunger strikers. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, deplores repressive policies and has sympathy for causes; here he explores the reactions of the Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov, a fellow author faced with similar political circumstances, one who demonstrated the courage of his convictions but who faltered at the final […]

Sandstone Keepsake

The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of H-Blocks at Long Kesh and hunger strikers. Heaney is holding a stone that he once picked up on the border separating Ulster from the Irish Republic. It comes to symbolise the speaker’s inner conflict in face of the whole swirl of events, feelings and insecurities to which both he and his native land are subjected, not least his sense of political restrictions imposed upon the north by the Brirish. He has kept the stone for a host of reasons: its reddish colouring (russet);its texture and fruit shape (solidified gourd);its geology of natural, local materials eroded by water: chalky …sedimentary. […]

Shelf Life

Memories are awakened by items that sit on ‘surfaces’ within Heaney’s private space; contrary tothe modern term ‘shelf-life’ that sets out the time it takes for perishables to become unfit for consumption, Heaney’s items remain timeless, have no ‘sell-by-date’. Heaney maps out his private space (in) six terse lyrics (MP p187); 1. Granite Chip The speaker once hammered a piece of Houndstooth stone ( ) off Joyce’s Martello/ Tower (near Dublin) recalling hard, Scottish granite associations (Aberdeen of my mind). He injured himself in the process: his human tissue was more vulnerable than the stone he gripped. Attractive though the surface and colourings of the granite chip were (this flecked insoluble brilliant) the stone has little in common with the […]

A Migration

The title introduces an all-female family group that has moved communities for reasons of necessity. Their new accommodation, close to where the speaker lives, is down-at-heel: leaking roof ../ cracked dormer windows. The identities of those involved are clarified. Standing out in his memory is the adolescent Brigid and the life-style imposed upon her: the sharing of a crowded bed; the scary sounds from outside: branch-whipped slates; the onset of puberty, her starts of womanhood. The move has left traumatic marks: a dream troubled her head. Memories of a sea-crossing are both visual (a lounge/where empty bottles rolled/ at every slow plunge and lift) and emotional: from persistently weeping child to strange/ flowing black taxi and, as if from a […]

Last Look

The poet recounts the speaker’s last sighting of an old man taking his last look at the environment in which he has spent his life. Heaney’s in memoriam is addressed to the memory E.G. and though we later learn the man’s family name, no further identity is provided.   A couple out for a spin above the sea-shore come across an old man stilled and oblivious, standing in limbo, mentally distant from the world around him;his gaze is focussed on the blossoming potatoes. This man-of-the-land has been walking the fields as evidenced by his trouser bottoms wet/ and flecked with grass seed.   Roadside sounds that might have awakened him from his reverie (Crowned blunt-headed weeds…/ flailed against our car)spark […]

Remembering Malibu

Dedicated to Brian Moore, Belfast novelist and friend, remembered by Heaney for his ‘kindness’ and his invitation to the Heaney family to visit him and his wife at their home in Malibu around 1970. New experiences challenge old attachments, transition is in the making. The first of two ‘American’ poems and first of a series of poems of transit and transitions (MP). A tale of two oceans and two cultures. The speaker recalls his introduction to the Pacific ocean at Brian Moore’s door. It was wilder and colder than he had led himself to believe. Surprised, perhaps, but above all relieved I would have rotted/ beside the luke-warm ocean I imagined. A cold ocean perhaps but less harsh than the […]

Making Strange

A further symptom of the poet in transition: when the New world meets the Old things collide. When professional development brings change the voice of poetry must move on. The speaker is at the interface of old and new as if separating irreconcilables: I stood between them. The living symbol of Heaney’s new world possesses a sophisticated travelled intelligence, combining tawny leather-accessorised prosperity and self-assured containment. He is articulate and precise: his speech like the twang of a bowstring. The emblem of the old Irish world is not ‘the’ other, but another, one of many, perhaps, self-neglecting and a touch backward: unshorn and bewildered. This one stands in rubber boots that sag with age: the tubs of his wellingtons. The […]

The Birthplace

Heaney and his wife are at Upper Bockhampton near Dorchester paying their respect to the spirit of English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). The 3-poem sequence explores associations with the poet and his birthplace. Heaney recalled the experienceslipping in en passant a reference to the significance of ‘station’ in a collection that includes the word in its title:The trees around the place, the thatched roof, the small rooms, all reminded me of Mossbawn. But that wasn’t the only reason I wrote it; there was also the fact that Hardy’s novels and poems were so much part of me by the time I got there. In fact, the grave in Stinsford churchyard and the house in Upper Bockharnpton are literary […]

Changes

A further example of poet in transition: a father and his child witness a special natural phenomenon; the experience provides him with an example of ‘change’ and with it a snippet of wisdom to be stored for the future. As in silence theyapproach an emblematic Irish pump, long since disused (in the long grass)the child knows not to speak. The father belongs to the generation that installed the pump; he can ‘hear’ the bite of the spade that sank it, recall the mood of the stonemason as he embedded the pump: the slithering and grumble/ as the mason mixed his mortar. He picturesthe women coming with white buckets, resembling birds with flashes on their ruffled wings. He instinctively recognises there […]

An Ulster Twilight

A poet in his mid-forties revisits the lost domain of childhood at a festive time of year and confirms that the mystery of Christmas supersedes political boundaries. The speaker pictures the disorderly workshop of a local carpenter and its disparate contents: spare bulb … scatter of nails; wood sorted into lengths and sizes (shelved timber); light reflected on tools (glinting chisels); the accommodation is modestly built of corrugated iron. The carpenter concentrates on the task of smoothing the timber: Eric Dawson stoops to his plane. Time to complete his job is pressing: five o’clock on a Christmas Eve. The process is re-played before the watcher’s eyes: Carpenter’s pencil next followed by a series of tools and a final finishing touch: […]

A Bat on the Road

  The epigraph is borrowed from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A batlike soul waking to consciousness of itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness. The final nouns defining the main ingredients of bat-like existence (shortage of light/ enlightenment; drawing back from human contact; isolation even outsider status) are equally the metaphorical embodiment of the creative spirit, be it a Joyce or a Heaney; these factors count amongst the issues hampering Heaney at this stage in his poetical development. Placed here within a series of poems of transition the bat is a ‘soul-mate’, a liberating spirit. You would (the repeated action perhaps of an anonymous companion on the rural walks of Heaney’s younger days) dislodge […]

A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann

The father recalls a stick he fashioned for his young daughter. Elements that were fleeting (gone), enduring (kept), animate (salmon) and inanimate (hazel twig) turned an everyday event into something remarkable. Compared to ephemeral natural examples (the living mother-of-pearl of a salmon/ just out of the water) the emblematic stick’s colourings were more enduring; it kept salmon-silver as it matured (seasoned)Ownership of the bendy, reassuring stick gave a status not easily surrendered: what you have you hold (literally and metaphorically ‘something to hang onto’ ). Its uses might be peaceful (to play with or pose with)or aggressive: lay about with. The stick reminds the speaker of a previous generation (points back to cattle), to an earlier father-farmer version, to the spatter and/ […]

A Kite for Michael and Christopher

A second poem about family lines: initially a father with his own father then this same father with his sons. The poem contains various themes: parenthood, the human condition, belief and doubt, the tethered spirit, the fate of being Irish. It is about ‘sticking together’. A generation ago All through that Sunday afternoon the kite flew,literally high in the sky, metaphorically unaffected by the restrictions traditionally imposed by the Catholic Sabbath: … above Sunday The plaything possessed a tightened drumhead body and wind-buffeted tail, likened to an armful of blown chaff,the latter offering it stability and proper flight; without it the kite would plummet to the ground. Heaney had observed its papier mâché construction and tested its properties: at first grey […]

The Railway Children

This touching poem portrays a world reduced to the dimensions of a child’s imagination. The speaker is one of a group of youngsters, brothers and sisters perhaps, exploring their neighbourhood. Their play brings them to the railway line. Mounting the slopes of the cutting brings them to the same height as the overhead cables (eye-level with the white cups/ Of the telegraph poles)and within hearing-range of the sizzling wires. The child is mesmerised by the cables: their written-script-like curvature Like lovely freehand; their extent as they stretch out miles/ east and miles west beyond us; the tests to which Nature subjects them: sagging/ Under the burden of swallows. The children’s understanding of telecommunications provides an attractive alternative to the truth: […]

Sweetpea

Beauty is fragile but it has a way of surviving the imaginative strategies of an inexperienced young gardener. The piece’s launch mimics the colloquial question asked half a century ago of people whose approach to a task turned out to be short-sighted:’ What did Thought do?(A typical response might have been ‘he followed a muck-cart and thought it was a wedding’ or even ‘he stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni’.) Heaney offers his variation: ‘Stuck/ a feather in the ground and thought/ it would grow a hen.’ Preparation of the sweet-pea patch is sound enough: its regular spacing, rod by rod we pegged the drill; its plant supports: light brittle sticks, twiggy and unlikely; its well […]

An Aisling in the Burren

  The direction in which life takes people distances them from places to which they are emotionally attached. The allure of the Burren has never faded: A time was to come when we yearned… They are back. Poetic focus settles warmly on the animal, vegetable and mineral riches of its northern shore (overlooking the Bay of Galway), its considerable provision of small sea-fish along eel-drugged flats, its sea-weed and bird life. Nature’s species have evolved: vexed by sea-water brine-maddened grass ensures earthly riches of biblical proportions: the aftermath of the reign of the meek. Other developments (political, social, or environmental) are not nearly so rosy: what the speaker can see is as much of hope that the purest/ and saddest […]

Widgeon

A short piece dedicated to fellow Irishman Paul Muldoon (b.1951); eminent Irish poet; Pulitzer Prizefor Poetry; T.S. Eliot Prize winner;Oxford Professor of Poetry (1999 – 2004). The bird is an innocent victim of Man’s hunting instincts. Correspondences with the victims of contemporary sectarian violence emerge strongly and the poet raises a critical finger against injustice, his compassion evident in both the literal and allegorical contexts. Heaney’s speaker is removing the feathers from the duck in preparation for the cooking-pot. Its death by shooting caused suffering: It had been badly shot. The plucker has discovered the duck’s voice-box / … in the broken windpipe; its vocal function is likened to a flute stop. The man’s response is both unexpected and moving: […]

Sheelagh na Gig

A three-poem sequence that celebrates a stone block Sheelagh na Gig, one of many, projecting from beneath the eaves of 12th century Norman/ Romanesque church at Kilpeck near the city of Hereford in England. I The positioning of the block is pinpointed. The figure crouches hunkering, high on the church-wall: We look up at her…/ under the eaves. The block has a structural rôle as if she bears the whole stone burden (that of the church roof) on the small of her back and shoulders; her elbows are locked in position: pinioned. She has an astute mouth (face or vulva is not made clear) and the gripping fingers that hold her lower body openinvite copulation: push, push hard/ push harder. […]

The Loaning

This sequence of three poems is inspired by an Ulster lane in a landscape very familiar to the poet. The poems share the sounds of nature or reflect the demeanour of rural folk in one form or another. The focus of the sequence shifts between fiction and reality: an initial surreal animation, then a scene of Ulstermen accustomed to each other’s company and finally a lament for things lost or threatening both to the ear and the soul. The Loaning’ does not contain such certainties as grace or transcendence, only shadows; MP perceives in the sequence a number of binary oppositions – human silence/ stasis mortality versus natural ‘speech/ motion/ mutability … the poet’s apprehension of contemporary brutality has stained […]